All smiles at Sunderland

August 29, 2012 in Premier League

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As it appears is Sunderland’s way in the Premier League, the team fizzled out towards the back end of last season. Following the hammering Everton dished out to us in the FA Cup quarter-final replay, the Black Cats failed to win any of their last eight games, losing three. It was an almost identikit replica to the end of Steve Bruce’s last season in charge. Contrary to popular belief (well, so Brucey would have you believe anyway), the current Hull City boss was not sacked because of his Geordie roots, but because Sunderland’s form dropped dramatically following the January departure of Judas (Darren Bent), and that form continued well into the beginning of the last campaign. We only won two of our first 14 games. Change was needed, it came in the form of Martin O’Neill, and his impact was instant. Pulling away from the danger zone, Sunderland looked threatening for about ten games before the perennial end of season syndrome kicked in and we ran out of steam.

The beginning of last season also started in a similar way to that of the previous - an opening day away draw against one of the so-called big boys (1-1 against Liverpool under Bruce and 0-0 against Arsenal under Martin O’Neill). What followed under Bruce’s reign was pretty disastrous and Sunderland fans couldn’t really be blamed for fearing history repeating itself in the opening round of the Capital One Cup against lower league opposition. After all under Bruce, despite the solid away point, Sunderland capitulated to Brighton and Hove Albion 1-0.

Yet no such nerves really existed, and because of the positivity surrounding this new campaign, I was confident we would come away from the game with our name still in the hat. So it proved Sunderland, by all accounts, strolled to a 2-0 victory over a hard working, well organized Morecambe side. Of course, there were differences between this game and the Brighton one; Morecambe are in League 2 and had to travel to the Stadium of Light while Brighton, who were newly promoted to the Championship and riding on the crest of the promotion wave, had home advantage at their newly built (at the time) AMEX stadium. But it was more than that.

Under Martin O’Neill, Sunderland fans have a real belief in the quality of the manager, his ability to bring the best out of players, to attract the highest quality of players and to utilize all of those things to create a team that actually knows what it is doing. Bruce, and indeed most of the previous managers I have known as a fan, generally flattered to deceive in all of these areas.

It was a similar feeling that surrounded fans when the price of our number one summer target was revealed. A lot has been made of the recent acquisition of Steven Fletcher for somewhere in the region of £12-14 million from Wolves. One of the writers on this site no less, criticized the purchase as being one of “no value”. He, of course, had a point, but I believe most Sunderland fans think that it is business well done. The prevailing feeling is that O’Neill knows what he is doing – Fletcher will be a massive success because O’Neill will make him into one. Although this logic is rooted in Marty’s previous success, it is still a little far-fetched to see that price as an acceptable one for a striker who has been relegated with two clubs. Of course, the proof is always going to be in the pudding, and Fletcher could equally be grossly overpriced and fail miserably. I just can’t see it.

Hell, I am so confident of Fletcher’s success that when Fulham striker Clint Dempsey was linked earlier in the week, I was struggling to fit him in a side consisting of James McClean, Stephane Sessengon, Adam Johnson and Fletcher in attack. This doesn’t mean I would say no to the American, just that perhaps from an attacking point of view Liverpool, maybe, need him more. I know I’m probably a nutcase for saying that and it really isn’t likely to happen, but it is just the positive vibes that are coming from the club. As football fans, we have enough to complain about to not enjoy it when the going is good.

Similarly, the other summer signings of Louis Saha, Carlos Cuellar and Adam Johnson all have their negative aspects. The first two are injury prone while Johnson, despite his obvious talent, never really made it at Manchester City, and there have been plenty of reports about how he doesn’t spend his free time judiciously. Under different management, these negative aspects may well have been focused on. Instead, Sunderland have focused on the positives. O’Neill reportedly visiting Johnson twice personally to convince him to sign, Saha teaching all our young strikers to be better players, Cuellar even tried to reconcile Sunderland fans and Judas (Darren Bent) by saying that he played a part in convincing Cuellar to sign for the Black Cats rather than re-signing for Villa, and everyone saw it as a good thing. It is honestly just a big love-in amongst Sunderland fans and the club at the moment, and long may it continue.

Positivity and everyone at the club working towards the same thing from fans to Chairman can make the difference between a mid-table Premier League club and one challenging for the European places. Of course, the signing of Clint Dempsey and a left back would also help.